who is number one?

As I promised, here's the story on the Modern Library's selection of Ulysses as the #1 greatest novel of the twentieth century.

First of all, the whole idea of a "greatest novel of the twentieth century" is nonsense. Lists like that are created for the sole reason of getting publicity by annoying people who then kick up a fuss because they think you've either slighted their preferred candidate, or annointed some piece of crap, or both. This has been going on for a long tme, but obviously the Internet has given it a huge boost.

For example, as I've mentioned before, Citizen Kane is routinely cited as the best movie ever (or the best America movie ever, which brings up a whole other issue, of course), and, in my opinion, it's not even the best movie Orson Welles ever directed. But I don't get all worked up and start writing derisive blog posts about it, because I know that's the idea.

That being said, I refer people back to Sonje's critique of Ulysses in response to my last post.

She has a point. Pretty much everything she says is true (well, I like parts of Ulysses tremendously and I'm not super-intelligent, but then again I'm the guy who's foolish enough to like The Bostonians without even getting paid for it).

But here's the thing. How did Ulysses get placed at the top of that list anyway?

I read an article by one of the Modern Library's board members, after their "Ulysses is #1!" announcement, and he (I think it was a "he") said that the first time they took the poll of the board, they came up with Lolita.

Okay, well, that was a problem. Quality schmality, the Modern Library can't go awarding any prizes to a novel about a pedophile, no matter how great it is. So, they took the poll again.

Lolita.

I think it took three tries before they managed to come up with Ulysses. Which contains, by pretty much any measure, far more offensive material than Lolita, but (unlike Lolita) it's really difficult to read. So, most people will never find out what's going on in there, quite possibly including some of the people who voted for it.

So, the next time you hear Ulysses praised for being #1, remember how it got there.

Here's something else on the Modern Library. On this page of their website, www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/ you can see two interesting things. One is that they've now managed to shove Lolita down to #4. The other is the rather peculiar list voted on by their readers, where Ulysses is down at #11 and Lolita is safely tucked away at #34. Some rather interesting choices in the top ten, though, huh?

Oh, and if you're wondering why all the fuss about James Joyce in the first place, get Dubliners and read the final story, "The Dead." Best thing he ever wrote. By far.

I think I'll go read it again.

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3 Responses to who is number one?

  1. tpaulin says:

    I never read Lolita, but one time someone called my house and asked to reserve it. He thought he was calling the video store. The guy sounded like a dirty little pig, so I told him yes, it was on hold. I like to imagine that when he got to the store, there was a big ruckus.

    I can be a jerkface sometimes. 🙂

    Hearing people fawn over ancient, boring things also brings out my jerkface tendencies.

  2. If he was hoping for pervy thrills, he was going to be disappointed. Both movie versions are quite tame. But the main question is which version he wanted to see. The original (directed by Stanley Kubrick) may be pretty far from the book (it was 1962, so it’s kind of surprising it got made at all), but it’s very much worth watching. Not the best Kubrick, but almost nothing is as good as the best Kubrick. But very good.
    http://klausming.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/lolita-1962

    The remake put me to sleep.

  3. sonje says:

    I don’t think I would make Lolita the #1 book of the 20th century either, but at least it is readable.

    I seriously wonder how many people–from either group–who voted for Ulysses actually read it all the way through. I’m guessing very few.

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